Indonesia in grip of separatist tide

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The Independent Online
THREE WEEKS before a planned referendum on autonomy in East Timor, concern is growing that a vote for independence will galvanise break-away movements in other parts of Indonesia.

Dozens of people are reported to have died in the past week in the province of Aceh on the north tip of Sumatra island, where Islamics have been fighting for independence, on and off, for more than a hundred years. Since the Indonesian president, B J Habibie, announced the possibility of independence for East Timor in January, many Acehnese have been demanding a referendum of their own.

Meanwhile, in the province of Maluku, formerly known as the Spice Islands or Moluccas, fighting that started on Monday between Muslims and Christians had left at least 16 people dead by yesterday morning. It is more than 20 years since Moluccan independence fighters were active in Indonesia and the Netherlands but, since the violence began there seven months ago, there has been a growing atmosphere of disgust with the central government in Jakarta.

East Timor is a special case among the territories controlled by Indonesia. Unlike the country's other 26 provinces, which were formerly the territories of the Dutch East Indies, it was a Portuguese colony.

Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, and its annexation the following year, have never been recognised as legitimate by the United Nations, which is supervising the staging of the independence referendum on 30 August.

"Aceh is different from East Timor. Aceh was born together [with Indonesia], while East Timor came in later," the Indonesian Home Affairs Minister, Syarwan Hamid, said last week. "Separating themselves from Indonesia is certainly not the best settlement." But even if their claim is weaker and less well known, the low-level war between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian armed forces has grown alarmingly this year.

According to aid workers, the renewed violence has driven 150,000 from their homes, creating the potential for a humanitarian disaster. By the Indonesian army's own estimate, probably conservative, 450 people have died in the past 11 months, 20 of them since last weekend. According to local human rights investigators, 18 farmers and timber workers were shot or killed with grenades on Saturday when Indonesian soldiers apparently mistook them for guerrillas. On the same day, a young man was shot dead from a military vehicle, shortly after the death of a local journalist, who was found with his head almost severed from his body.

That Aceh has taken inspiration from East Timor's successful demands for self- determination, there is little doubt. After a bitter war against the Dutch in colonial times, the struggle against outside domination continued under the Javanese presidents Sukarno, and his successor, Suharto, who was forced from power last year. During the Nineties, Aceh was under virtual martial law, but for many people the issue at stake then was justice, and the rich oil and gas resources taken from Aceh by foreign and Jakarta- based corporations.

After Suharto's forced resignation, and the subsequent democratic reforms, the army pulled out many of its units and the position in Aceh improved for a few months. But this year, demands for a referendum have spread among the general population. The GAM has become more active, and 7,000 new soldiers were brought into the province last week, bringing the total number of troops to more than 30,000.

Last week, a GAM spokesman threatened to attack a large natural-gas refinery in the city of Lhokseumawe, although the threat was later withdrawn.

"The violence has created a fragile situation," said Humam Hamid of the Care Human Rights Foundation. "If this continues, we're going to begin the new millennium with a famine."